What looks like the slow and painful decline and fall of the Top 14’s original Galacticos is actually a chance to rebuild the club with a new – very French – image, writes James Harrington.
What a difference two years makes – 731 little days, including the leap year in 2016.
In May 2015, Toulon won their third European title in as many years. It remains their most recent piece of silverware. Twelve months earlier they had done the domestic and European double. The season before that, two weeks after winning the first of their European hat-trick of titles, they missed out on a full French set when they lost the Top 14 final to Castres Olympique.
This weekend, Toulon will play in another European Champions Cup quarterfinal, and they are seemingly well-placed for the Top 14’s end-of-season playoffs. But that’s where any similarity to those not-so-long-ago glory seasons ends.
This year’s Champions Cup quarter-final is not at their raucous home ground, Stade Felix Mayol. It’s at Clermont’s Stade Marcel Michelin – a place that is usually a graveyard for visiting teams in a competition in which away sides, Saracens excluded in the past three seasons, just do not win last-eight matches. Given the two sides’ current form and the venue, Clermont has to be the strong favourite.
While Toulon has comfortably finished first or second in the Top 14 between 2012 and 2016 to ensure a rest week in the playoffs, they are currently fourth – 11 points adrift of second-placed Clermont, and 22 behind leaders La Rochelle.
Of more concern to president Mourad Boudjellal and the club’s fans is the fact that they are not yet certain to finish in the all-important top six of the French domestic competition, which includes a spot in next season’s Champions Cup.
With four matches left in the regular season, Toulon has 53 points – one more than sixth-placed Pau, and only four more than eighth-placed Racing 92. Two other teams in the playoff mix, Montpellier (third, with 56 points) and Castres (fifth, on 52 points), have each played one game fewer after home matches they were both expected to win, against Racing 92 and Stade Francais respectively, were postponed following the recent merger debacle.
A row between the FFR and the LNR means it has not yet been confirmed if those games will be played at a future date, or if the two host sides will be awarded five points each for a forfeited fixture.
Does this decline and fall of the Toulon empire signal the slow death of rugby’s original Galacticos? Probably not. But there’s change in the air. French rugby will still have Toulon, but not as we know it.
Boudjellal has said that a future Toulon team will be almost entirely ‘Made in France’. He seemingly accepts all the problems that entails, saying: “The challenge of a mainly French team is more difficult but, if you win a title, it is more virtuous.”
This is a man, remember, who has shamelessly bought success. The Toulon that Mourad has built since taking over in 2006 boasts a roll-call of international stars in its Hall of Fame: Tana Umaga, George Gregan, Andrew Mehrtens, Sonny Bill Williams, Jonny Wilkinson, Carl Hayman, and Bakkies Botha, to name just a few.
Even the current, apparently shadow-of-its-former-self side boasts Ma’a Nonu, Duane Vermeulen, Bryan Habana, Leigh Halfpenny, Juan Smith, Mamuka Gorgodze, Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell and Juan Fernández Lobbe.
But despite next season’s arrival of Facundo Isa, Chris Ashton and another cross-code punt in Semi Radrada, the end is nigh for international stars topping up their bank balances and their tans on the Mediterranean coast. Boudjellal, having gone through two head coaches, a forwards coach and a defence coach already this year, is plotting a new future for the club under the soon-to-arrive Fabien Galthié, a coach he has been chasing for some considerable time.
The Galactico-import model is now pretty much dead at Toulon. Boudjellal has openly said as much, admitting that “other sides are doing what we did even better,” while trying not to look too enviously at Montpellier, Clermont and – yes, for all their current problems, Racing 92.
So, just as he has done previously, he’s changing the game – or at least making a virtue of a changing game. New player quota rules mean that, from next season, Top 14 clubs can have a maximum of 16 overseas players on their books.
But Boudjellal is hinting that he is willing to go further – to the delight no doubt of FFR president and successful former Toulon coach Bernard Laporte, who is desperate to increase the depth of the French player pool to the benefit of the national side despite opposition from the LNR.
French-flavour Top 14 success has been done before. In 2015, Stade Francais won the Brennus with a squad brimming with homegrown talent. They just have not been able to keep that squad together.
So, what Galthié – who Boudjellal regards as the natural successor to Laporte – has to do is rebuild Toulon with a much deeper French saveur. And with just as much success. It is likely to take time, but if the club and coach can stick together through the difficult times, it may well become the standard by which future Top 14 sides are set.
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